The Criminal Mind of a Writer

I’m a big fan of the TV show “Criminal Minds” (though it creeps me out on a regular basis) because I’ve realized that the behavior analysts portrayed on the show operate a lot like fiction writers.

We’re always wondering why someone would do something… what’s in their past that has haunted them to this day? How do their past experiences affect what they do and how they think?

If we could just get to the bottom of those questions, we’d understand completely (or nearly so) why our characters make the decisions they make. If we get to those answers, they help us when we’re stuck: Uh-oh. I’m here and need to get there. What would the character do? Why?

It becomes a sort of mental tic, even when we’re not sitting at the keyboard. We fiction writers might be walking down an aisle in the grocery store when someone nearly rams their cart into us as we turn a corner. They look distracted — one ear on a cell phone, their free hand pushing a cart stuffed with what looks like way too many cases of beer. Or cookies and cakes and bags of snacks. Or baby formula. Or paper plates.

What’s their problem?!? we think. Then it starts: the analysis. Maybe they’re late for the party and everyone is relying on them for the beer or snacks. Maybe the baby is sick — again. Maybe the family reunion picnic is just a few hours away and they’re dreading seeing old Uncle Jasper, with all that nasty history facing them both.

I don’t know about you, but it’s why I need lists — so when I get caught up on that “Criminal Minds” type of analysis, I won’t forget what I came to the store for in the first place.

The character analysis? The brand-new character, dropped into my life by accident? Well, that’s one of the rewards of paying attention, of seeing every encounter as an opening, a possibility, whether that character is a criminal or not.